Saturday, November 12, 2011

good food, good friends, good times

To make reading about my 2 week travel break easier, I am going to split it up into three posts, one for each country I visited.  First up is Italy:

my first gelato: caramel
My first impression of Italy was frustration.  Our flight from CPH to Milan was delayed, which caused us to miss our train from the Milan central station to Florence.  Luckily we were able to cancel our ticket reservations and receive 80% of our money back. However, the next train with available tickets wasn't for four hours, and it was standing room only. By the time we actually got to our first destination (Florence) it was 21:30, much later than anticipated. While waiting forever at the train station, I enjoyed my first Italian gelato of many over the next 5 days.

Although we arrived in Florence rather late, things don't really get started until later in the evening. After dropping our things at the hostel, we changed and headed to a bar called Twice for happy hour: 5 euro cocktails. I experienced first hand how forward and pushy Italian men can be when one tried to dance with me again and again after I'd already walked away from him.

Our first (and only) full day in Florence was wonderful! We purchased some fresh fruit and yogurt from a local supermarket for breakfast and made our way to eat on the Ponte Vecchio, a famous shop-covered bridge.  Remarkably, when the Nazi's invaded Florence during WWII, this was the only bridge they didn't destroy!

on the Ponte Vecchio

statues of Pallazo Vecchio
Next we headed to a touristy area to see some really cool statues outside of the Pallazo Vecchio. Most of the statues feature fighting men and creatures, as well as the ever popular lion. We also went to see the Duomo, the biggest church in Florence. Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside because we were wearing shorts, which are not allowed. But we got to see the humungous dome and colorful facade. 

the Duomo 

beautiful facade of Duomo

We also visited the San Lorenzo market, a huge street market with vendors selling things from homemade crafts to leather sandals to expensive jewelry. Cara and I were also hit on by several Italian men, once again showcasing their forward nature.

Instead of paying the expensive entrance fee to the Galleria Dell'Accadmia to see the original David statue, we spent our euros on white wine and biscuits with pesto, which we took to the Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset. The Piazzale Michelangelo is really just a glorified parking lot on the top of a hill, but it has the very best view of Florence below.  We enjoyed the artistic sunset and even met some students on travel break from their studies in France and a local dog, which we lovingly named Paulo and fed biscuits.

sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo

After a fabulous stay, it was time to say goodbye to Florence and hello to Rome.  We had another mishap at the train station and almost couldn't print our tickets in time. We were just having the worst luck with the Italian transportation system. Regardless, we arrived in Rome three hours later and started searching for our housing, which had many different names, including: Sweet Place in Rome and Korean Apartments.  We checked in at the back of a laundromat, which was kind of sketchy, but the owners were very nice and let us have unlimited internet use on the laundromat computers.  We stayed in the Colosseum room, which featured a massive picture of the Colosseum above the beds. 

Once unpacked, we walked to the Piazza della Repubblica, which featured a fountain in the center and a very busy traffic circle that was very difficult to cross safely. We also went inside a beautiful church, the Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Unfortunately, you were not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but you can trust me that is was wonderful and certainly no pictures that I could have taken would do it justice. 

Jackie and I in our Halloween masks
Halloween in Rome is apparently a big deal. We all bought masks in Florence to wear out on Halloween night. We left for the metro station and came out right by the Colosseum, which is even impressive in the dark.  After orientating ourselves in the right direction, we headed off to the student area of Rome where we were promised cool bars and places to hang out with other students. We met an awesome group of students from Kentucky and a few other states that decided to join us on our quest for Halloween fun.  We ended the evening at a club called the Mansion, which was pretty lame at first because we were a tad early and the party hadn't started yet. But soon enough the club was packed and we need to go outside to breathe. 

Happy Halloween from Rome!

First thing the next morning, we headed to the Fontana di Trevi, the most famous fountain in Italy. Nicolo Salvi's masterfully cut rock fountain features Neptune surrounded by the goddesses of abundance and good health as well as two horsemen. The fountain is always crowded with people throwing in their three coins. As legend goes, the first coin will ensure a return to Rome, the second will bring love in the Eternal City, and the third will bring about a wedding. Of course I had to throw all three of my coins in the fountain. 

Fontana di Trevi
throwing our coins

Next we headed to the Spanish Steps for a quick breather with a nice view while we planned a route to our next stop: Vatican City!  The Vatican was certainly impressive, but the long lines and large crowd was a major turnoff. We managed to get inside St. Peter's Basilica, an enormous church which high ceilings and ornate decorations. Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter's is the largest in the world, an incredible 138 meter height and 42 meter width. Just try to imagine that! 

Cara and I outside St. Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's dome
inside the Basilica

Although I really wanted to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the wait was several hours and with only one more day in Rome, it was unrealistic to spend so much time waiting in line to see one thing.

Exhausted from a day of sight-seeing, we headed to a restaurant way off the beaten path, which ensured delicious, authentic Italian food and few tourists. The pasta was homemade and looked quite tasty, although I wasn't very hungry so Cara and I split a pizza, which was still wonderful. I have been spoiled by all the good Italian food: pasta, pizza, and gelato will never be the same again.

On our final day in Rome we visited all the Ancient ruins. First stop: the Colosseum! We avoided the hour long line by paying 5 extra euros for a tour in English, which was actually very informative and I'm glad we paid a little extra for it.

the Colosseum! 
fighting stage and passages

Inside the Colosseum back in the day, there were morning and afternoon fights as entertainment. The morning fights were hunting games, pitting men against animals (tigers, lions, bears, etc.). In the afternoon, the fights were strictly men versus men. The winner received money, freedom (if he was a slave), or other valuable items, usually made of gold or another precious metal. The underground passages exposed today were transport passages under the main stage for the animals. Also, most of the resources from the Colosseum structure itself were recycled by the Popes in the 1500s, which is the reason for the many holes in the columns and walls. 
lovely ladies at the Colosseum

Next we headed over to Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum. The Palantine will was once the place to live in Rome, but today it is mostly just ruins of buildings and temples along the hillside. 

ruins at Palatine Hill
ruins at Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum was once the headquarters of Ancient Rome. Via Sacra, the oldest street in Rome, runs through the center of the Forum. Other attractions included the Curia (original meeting place of the Senate), the Temple of Saturn, as well as the Arch of Titus. 

enjoying the Roman Forum
ruins in the Roman Forum

After viewing the best of Ancient Rome, we headed to a local panini place for some lunch and then stumbled upon the BEST gelato we'd experienced in Italy. There were so many flavors to choose from that it made ordering very difficult. I decided on three scoops: chocolate cinnamon, philadelphia creme cheese with walnuts, and ricotta cheese with blueberries. They may sound like an odd combination, but it worked, and it was wonderful. 

Sadly we've made it to the end of our Italian adventures. I think I preferred the quiet streets of Florence to the hustle and bustle of Rome, but both cities were fabulous and I do hope to return on day. The pasta was life-changing and it was a true learning experience traveling on my own (without adult supervision). The trip was true to our motto: good food, good friends, good times. 

Check back for the next post all about part two of my travel break: Athens, Greece!

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